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"The Mayor Of Westville:" New Haven Mourns, Remembers Semi Semi-Dikoko

Lucy Gellman | September 14th, 2022

Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  Artspace New Haven  |  Visual Arts  |  Westville  |  Community Heroes  |  Artwalk

SemiArtsAwardsSemi-Semi Dikoko with David Sepulveda and Aleta Staton at the Arts Awards in December 2012. Judy Sirota Rosenthal Photo with permission from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. 

Maybe he offered you a glass of red wine as he floated through the studio, and pulled you into an embrace. Maybe you tended the apple trees together at Edgewood Park, or listened to poetry in the warm half-light of Lyric Hall. Maybe you saw the beret across a crowded room, and knew that for a moment, all was well with the world. 

His door was always open. He almost certainly called you darling, with a rolling h that you could reach out and touch. He may have pushed you to dream bigger than you thought possible. If you were lucky, you shared a tango and a tray of Brussels sprouts with him. 

Semi Semi-Dikoko, a tireless advocate for the arts who blessed New Haven with three decades of a gentle and generous spirit, died at Smilow Cancer Hospital last Thursday, with the artist Amie Ziner at his side. The cause was prostate cancer, which Semi-Dikoko had been fighting bravely and often quietly for four years. In the past decade, he also battled lymphoma, which was until recently in remission. He was 69 years old. 

He leaves behind his younger sisters, Annie Gumba and Lucienne Nkebani of New Haven, an older brother, Maxime Luzolo of Congo, nieces and cousins who adored him, and hundreds of New Haveners who are still reeling from his death. In over a dozen interviews, friends, family members, and colleagues remembered him as a brilliant and familiar presence, who always wanted to know what more he could do for the community. 

“Semi just touched so many lives,” said his friend and studio mate David Sepulveda. The two, who shared a studio at West River Arts, were so close they often seemed like two halves of the same, vibrantly beating heart. 

He was trained as a systems architect and consultant, who worked for IBM, Fujitsu Americas, Deutsche Bank, NASA, and Southern New England Telecommunications (SNET) among others. He was a dedicated public servant, whose thousands of volunteer hours spanned Friends of Edgewood Park to Artspace New Haven to the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance. 

For most of his friends, he was Semi, a warm and constant presence who always had time for the people in his life.  

“His art was human connectivity,” said Aaron Goode, who met him over a decade ago when the two enrolled in the city’s first Democracy School class. “That was his medium. He was a painter of civic canvases. Westville, that was one of his canvases, but so was New Haven and so was New York.”

Curious & Calm

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Semi Semi-Dikoko at Artwalk in 2021. Lucy Gellman File Photo. 

Semi-Dikoko was born in Congo, the second oldest of four children to a nurse, Dorcas Wumba-Di-Mazimi, and Jean Esaie Dikoko, an executive at the Central Bank of Congo. Before his birth, his mother studied at a nursing school run by American missionaries, then worked for the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Justice in Belgian Congo. 

Because his father was out of the house so often, Semi-Dikoko became a kind of second father figure to his two younger sisters, who later moved with him to New Haven.  

As a child, “Semi was special,” his sister Annie Gumba said last Thursday afternoon, as family filled her home in Westville, and stories flitted through the kitchen and dining room. From a young age, he shouldered household responsibilities, busying himself in the kitchen, and then fixing things around the house. By the time he was in his early teens, he was doing the home’s landscaping while looking after his younger sisters, both of whom he later helped through school in the United States. 

He loved to cook, teaching himself to make beans, and later duck, cornish hen, fish, and Brussels sprouts with a pomegranate reduction that gained celebrity status across New Haven.  

If something broke around the house, he would fix it. If he didn’t know how to—in an age well before Google and video tutorials—he taught himself. 

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The mobiles that Sepulveda and Semi Semi-Dikoko built in their studio. Jadan Anderson File Photo.

It built the foundation for not just his professional work as a systems architect, but a life spent tinkering. As a teen, Semi-Dikoko played flute and trombone, sang, and had a love for opera and classical music that his cousins remembered as contagious (and indeed, the studio he shared with Sepulveda was often filled with music). Calling from Paris, his cousin Hyacinthe said that there was no subject too large or too daunting for Semi-Dikoko to navigate.   

“He was very curious,” Gumba said. “Learning an-y-thing that came around. At one point, we said, ‘Are you an engineer? Are you a teacher? Are you a technician? He was up to everything! Seriously. Every single thing.’” 

By the time he was in his 20s, he told his parents that he was going to take care of his two younger sisters—and he made good on his word. After securing a job as a computer analyst with IBM in Congo, he moved to Brussels, Belgium, and then to Bremen, Germany. When she was 16, Gumba joined him in Bremen. It was the beginning of a career that would take him from West Africa to Europe to the U.S.

In her older brother, she saw a gentleman who could jump from German to French to Japanese, slip into Bantu and Swahili, and steer conversations through politics, engineering, and the arts in a single night.  

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Semi Semi-Dikoko and his sister, Annie Gumba. David Sepulveda Photo. 

Mostly, she saw how deeply he cared for the people and places around him. During their years in Bremen, the two would sometimes visit a restaurant that required punting a boat across a small lake. As he took the oars, she recalled, he often offered to do the work, and let her sit back in the boat. 

That’s just who he was, she said—always willing to make the ride a little easier for whoever was with him, and whoever might come next. 

“A Catalyst for Creativity”

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Sepulveda and Semi-Dikoko downtown. Thomas McMillan File Photo. The image below is a file photo from the New Haven Independent. 

It was during those years that Semi-Dikoko’s professional star was also rising. In the early 1980s, he worked on a joint project for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European International Space Agency (EISA) in Belgium that became a door to the U.S. After moving to New York City, he worked on Wall Street, then for a headhunting firm, then in software, recalled his friend and former colleague Steve Rubino. 

There was nothing he couldn’t do, said Rubino, who praised him for the creative thinking with which he often approached problems in the field. As the two traded stories about their work on Wall Street and in IT, they grew close. Decades of friendship later, Rubino often finds himself asking “what would Semi do?” In the last three years, the two were particularly close.

“He was a catalyst for creativity,” he said in a phone call Tuesday night. “The goodness inside of him, you couldn’t suppress it. He was always looking to better himself through art, and he loved what he did. I think he was a facilitator in a lot of ways … He was one in a million.”     

It was consulting work with SNET that ultimately brought Semi-Dikoko to Connecticut, where he made New Haven his home in 1991. As he worked, he maintained that role as a sort of second father, helping Nkebani with her studies at St. Michael’s College in Vermont as Gumba pursued a degree at Albertus Magnus College. 

That was true even as he earned his pilot’s license, and used his newfound aviation skills to serve those around him. Laughing at the memory, Gumba recalled how her brother would fly the two from New Haven to Long Island, in a successful attempt to bypass traffic on the highway as they headed to see their sister in Vermont. Years later when lymphoma grounded him, he would regale the impromptu, salon-like gatherings in his studio with stories of being in flight.   

In New Haven he wore many hats (almost all of them red and black berets), from consultant to neighborhood booster to doting uncle, known and adored in his family’s youngest circles simply as “Tonton Semi.” When Gumba first got married, Semi-Dikoko helped her husband find work in the U.S., doing consulting in the Connecticut area. He became a dedicated uncle to Gumba’s children, Christian Ngongi-Semi and Simone and Sarah Ngongi. 

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“Uncle Semi raised us,” Sarah Ngongi said Thursday. “He really helped me explore my artistry. He definitely contributed to the woman that I am today, and my love for the arts.”

After his move to the Elm City in the 1990s, Semi-Dikoko built an extended family of friends in New Haven, from the city’s arts community to its nonprofit scene to local government. Goode, who met him in the early 2000s, remembered his friend as deeply insightful, with a clarity around the kind of advocacy work he wanted to do. Initially, the two were in a then-nascent Democracy School cohort together. They remained close until the end of Semi-Dikoko’s life. 

“I remember him telling me that he was interested in doing Democracy School because he wanted to learn the tools to become a better advocate for the arts,” Goode said in a phone call Monday. “He had a great understanding of politics because he had a great understanding of life.”

And he did. In 2010, Semi-Dikoko became president of the Friends of Edgewood Park, where he led New Haven in a nationwide contest to get fruit trees along the park’s trails. The contest, titled ​“Communities Take Root,” had over 120 entrants from some 20 towns and cities across the U.S. Semi-Dikoko wasn’t phased: he enlisted the help of his friends, networks, and social media to get 33,000 New Haveners to sign. New Haven won by over 10,000 signatures.  

“I felt like I was watching Churchill leading the British people during World War II,” Goode said. It convinced him of the role that social media could play in spreading the word on civic projects and information, which he still does through his incisive, often funny Twitter presence. 

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Semi-Dikoko with the 2021 Thanksgiving meal he prepared for his family, while living in temporary housing. David Sepulveda Photo.

He was also a great calm in a greater storm, working to serve his community and family through tremendous heartbreak of his own. In 2011, his nephew Christian Ngongi-Semi was killed by a drunk driver while walking on the shoulder of the road with a friend in East Haven. He was 16, with a sweet, boyish face and eyes that lit up a whole room. Semi-Dikoko, after whom Ngongi-Semi was affectionately named, was crushed. 

“It was very hard for Semi,” Gumba remembered. Shortly after his nephew’s death, he was diagnosed with lymphoma for the first time. 

Even in his own private pain, Semi-Dikoko didn’t stop giving to New Haven. In the public eye, he helped plant those 48 fruit trees in Edgewood Park. At home, he supported his sister, finding the ways to care for his nieces as they grieved the loss of a brother, and for Gumba and her husband as they faced life without their son. He threw himself into planning committees, becoming involved with the then-young Westville Village Renaissance Alliance and early celebrations of the neighborhood’s annual Westville Artwalk.  

Sepulveda, whose daughter Kara was the same age as Ngongi-Semi, grew close with Semi-Dikoko during that time. When Semi-Dikoko was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2011, Sepulveda created a landscaping project that the two could do together at Gumba’s home, nestled at the corner of Ray Road and Birch Drive in the city’s Westville neighborhood. 

There, Sepulveda remembered, the two would kneel in the grass, carry trays of flowers, and figure out tree-to-tree irrigation pathways that had them working for hours alongside each other. Semi-Dikoko, who loved nature, often joked that he was sweating the cancer out. Within years, the two became inseparable. On Tuesday, Sepulveda’s wife, Priscilla Sepulveda, said that Semi-Dikoko was so loved in their home that even the dog, Georgia, will mourn his absence.  

The Mayor Of Westville 

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Semi Semi-Dikoko with Artspace New Haven Former Director Helen Kauder at a Puerto Ricans United gala in 2018. Lucy Gellman File Photo. 

In every direction a person looked—including his intimate, mobile-studded shared studio— Semi-Dikoko poured his energy into the community around him. In interviews for this piece, dozens of artists remembered him as the life of the party and the glue that often pulled them together. It did not matter where they met him—often at an exhibition opening, but sometimes simply on the street in Westville—they fell instantly in love with him. 

Westvillian Aly Fox, whose “Friendsgiving '' celebrations gained celebrity status in the neighborhood before the Covid-19 pandemic, remembered meeting Semi-Dikoko around 2012, when he rolled up to her apartment around eight or nine in the evening. 

By then, most of her guests had moved on to dessert and coffee. Semi-Dikoko brought a tray of Brussels sprouts, still on the stalk, bathed in a pomegranate reduction and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. He danced with guests, a glass of red wine almost always cradled in his hand as he moved. As he returned year after year, it became his signature. 

“That was just one of the ongoing jokes of Friendsgiving, like it wasn’t complete until Semi brought the Brussels sprouts,” she said. “And it wasn’t complete until there was dancing with Semi. The life of the party was him, and it wasn’t a party until he was with you.” 

As they got to know each other, she said, she was struck by the lack of hierarchy in his life. If you shared “a meal and a glass of wine,” you were part of that growing, extended family. When she found out he had passed, Fox said she wanted to tell the neighborhood to go into Edgewood Park with their wine and food, and raise a glass in his honor. 

At home, Tonton Semi remained the same supportive presence he had always been. When he learned that fashion helped Sarah cope with her brother’s death, he encouraged her to pursue it. From her classes at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School to her fledgling fashion brand Avec Dieu, he became her loudest and most steadfast cheerleader. 

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Sam Dapper and Sarah Ngongi at Seeing Sounds earlier this year. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

As she grew up, he nurtured that spark, giving her a workspace in his shared studio. After years on the planning committee for Artwalk New Haven, he introduced her to some of its fellow artist-organizers, from Mistina and Luke Hanscom to Mohamad Hafez and Susan McCaslin, with whom he shared a floor at West River Arts. 

In May, Sarah watched as he and Sepulveda took their seats in the first row of a fashion show where she was presenting her work.   

“The majority of the time I would be happy, but if I knew there was a feeling that I can’t shake, I would go to my sewing machine and try a design,” she said. “Uncle Semi … he would always tell me, ‘I’m a consultant, come to me! If you need some guidance, I’m here.’” 

By then, Semi-Dikoko had very much become the unofficial mayor of Westville—and sometimes, it seemed, of New Haven—many times over. If a visitor stumbled into his studio (as this reporter often did), it was Semi-Dikoko who offered them a glass of red wine or, if it was late at night and he needed to stay awake, a pot of black coffee. Because he worked with international clients, he was often awake into the wee hours of the morning.

It was, and will continue to be, a magical space. Inside, he and Sepulveda assembled mobiles from recycled laundry detergent containers, turning the thick plastic, colorful into Calder-esque designs that caught in the light and could transport a viewer instantly back to childhood. Early in the process, Semi-Dikoko figured out a way to balance the plastic shapes with alligator clips, fixed to the strings just so. 

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Semi Semi-Dikoko and Kim Weston in his studio. David Sepulveda Photo.

To ease Sepulveda’s trigger wrist, Semi-Dikoko also began to research and then use the CNC process, using it to cut out plastic shapes at MakeHaven. That was Semi, Sepulveda said: fascinated by a complex process, and eager to learn it if it helped a friend. 

“He would come back with a table full of beautiful shapes and then he started making cuts within a shape, opening within the mobile shape,” Sepulveda said. “It just added so much to that mobile design.” 

Under his watchful eye, the studio became a gathering place, where conversation flowed freely and laughter rose in thick, weightless clouds through the air. Semi-Dikoko could talk about anything, peppering his sentences with darling and mon ami and toward the end of the night, a kiss on the cheek. 

“It was like being at an 18th-century French salon,” Goode said. “The wine would flow and the conversation would flow, and we’d just bask in his radiance, his effervescence, his connoisseurship of art and life.” 

It was not just his warmth that drew people to him, but his willingness to give counsel freely and without reservation. When Mistina and Luke Hanscom bought the buildings that would become Lotta Studio and West River Arts in 2015, Semi-Dikoko urged them “to think bigger” in their fundraising. Mistina, who for years worked alongside him coordinating Artwalk, grew to love their conversations. 

“I’m not sure I remember life without Semi,” she said. “I could just show up at his studio door and sit on his floor. He was very easily accessible, and I think that that was one of the most beautiful qualities. His door was always open, and he never shied away from difficult conversations. He just provided a different perspective.”  

“I never passed by his door and saw him in a bad mood,” said the artist Mohamad Hafez, a fellow night owl who works in studio next door, and often welcomed Semi-Dikoko’s late night visits. During 2016 and 2017, Semi-Dikoko helped pull Hafez through the emotional anguish and stress of the early Trump years as he channeled them into his art. “He was just really, a lit up person. His energy was very contagious. It was very hard to be around him and be sad and miserable.” 

That was true across the city, where Semi-Dikoko endeared himself to every organization, friend, and later hospital employee he met. Roughly seven years ago, Semi-Dikoko joined the board of Artspace New Haven, on which he actively served until his death. Former Artspace Director Helen Kauder, who stepped back from the organization in 2020, stressed how strongly he worked to build bridges between Westville, downtown New Haven, and the rest of the city. 

She estimated that she was on the phone with him “at least once a week,” brainstorming about how to better fund and support not just Artspace, but all of the arts in New Haven. 

“It Was Like My King Had Passed”

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Susan Clinard and Semi Semi-Dikoko. David Sepulveda Photo. The image below, of Clinard's bust, is by Susan Clinard. 

Even as Semi-Dikoko’s body failed him, his mind remained clear. Six years ago, he moved in with Gumba, who formed a sort of dynamic care duo with Sepulveda. When a fire erupted in their Birch Drive home 18 months ago and displaced the family—all during his cancer treatments—he didn't let it dampen his spirits. 

Last Thanksgiving, he prepared a meal while the family was living in transitional Yale graduate student housing downtown. When the family moved back in months ago, his whole presence filled the space. 

Thursday, Gumba said she thinks of that time as giving back: she was able to do some of the cooking and caretaking that he had done for her and then her children decades before.  

“He was really a father to me, and I had to give it back to him, that’s why I kept him under my roof,” she said in an interview at her home in Westville. “I’m really grateful that I spent the time with him. He fought. He wanted to live. He’s a fighter. There was no winning with this [cancer].”

SemiBust2He spent his final months, and then weeks, delighting the community he so loved, and that he had made his home. In May, the artist Susan Clinard began laying the groundwork for a bust of Semi-Dikoko, which she completed in August. Sepulveda, who was rarely not by his friend’s side, documented the process. 

After meeting him six years ago, when she was curating Stories from Far and Near at the New Haven Museum, she called it one of the greatest honors of her career. During her work curating the show, Semi-Dikoko had stepped in to translate for writer and theatermaker Toto Kisaku, then an asylum seeker newly in the United States. The two became fast friends. 

In the finished piece, his eyes travel up and to the left, as if he is watching a bird soar across the sky. One of his signature berets rests atop his head. It is crown-like for a reason: Semi-Dikoko was regal.  

“For a sculptor, there’s nothing more amazing, more sweet than having someone sit for a portrait,” she said in a phone call last Thursday afternoon. “It was a beautiful time with Semi, where we sculpted this together. I say we sculpted together because his beautiful self just seeped into my fingertips.I feel so blessed that we had those intimate, joyful hours that we got to spend together in this studio.” 

Photographer and educator Kim Weston, the driving force behind Wábi Gallery, also spoke to him during that time. In a phone call Sunday, she estimated that she’d known Semi-Dikoko for 15 years, and worked closely with him for many of those (“his studio was the place to be,” she said with a smile somewhere in her voice). 

In May, she stepped back from board leadership at Artspace for professional reasons. He called her just to check in, and give the counsel for which he was so well known. It was the last time they spoke. 

“He said, ‘go build Wábi,’” she recalled. “You came to New Haven to build. You go build that, because New Haven needs you. Needs people like you. Needs artists like you. For New Haven Haven artists, and for artists all around.” 

When she found out he had died on Thursday, ”it was like my king had passed,” she said. “I felt like that was such a loss of a soul. A soul of a man.”   

There was not a person who met Semi-Dikoko and did not fall in love with him. When he received chemo on his 69th birthday, nurses serenaded him as Sepulveda recorded in the background. In a video from that day, Semi-Dikoko is holding a cupcake the size of his palm, the plastic lid fitted over a crown of white and green frosting. 

Five nurses surround his chair, their hands clapping as they sing.  His eyes follow them, and even beneath a mask it is clear that he is summoning a smile. At the end of the song, he lifts the box to his mouth in gratitude, then blows a kiss with his left hand.  

In the days since his death, both Gumba and Sepulveda have listened as story after story emerges, all of them told with the same warmth  with which Semi-Dikoko lived his life. Some friends sent poems about Brussels sprouts and dancing. Others recalled his famous toasts, from Artspace to Artwalk to the studio where he held court.  

In his absence, both Weston and Mistina Hanscom said that his legacy will be passing that generous spirit on to others, particularly to young artists. 

At the end, he was not alone. When he moved into the ICU last week, family stayed with him for hours on end. In his final moments, Ziner reminded him how loved he was. She is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, now grappling with what many called simply a “Semi-sized hole” that has been ripped in their chests. 

“He took up a room,” Weston said. “He was the center of attention, but he would turn it back around to whatever artist needed it. That’s what made him the mayor of New Haven. And he’s going to be missed in so many areas. He was a profound soul, and he was good at everything that he did. He found the good in everybody.” 

A service is planned for Friday, Sept. 16, at 10:30 a.m. at Gateway Christian Fellowship, 129 Bull Hill Ln., West Haven. A viewing begins at 9 a.m.